Decluttering Hasn’t Just Left My House Neater—It’s Challenged My Sense Of Who I Am

After cancer and a year without shopping, purging and organizing was the next step.

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decluttering challenge-organized clothing closet with hangers with various coloured clothing in a row

Photo, iStock.

I’ve always been messy although I aspire (half-heartedly) to be tidy. Or maybe I just long for a tidiness I don’t need to create or maintain myself. And then there’s the second law of thermodynamics governing our universe that states order will always revert to chaos. Which raises the question: Why bother?

I suffer from a certain domestic disinterest. If there was an exam to pass, I wouldn’t even be allowed to have a house. Clutter, which is like a living organism, generates constant low-level, and occasional high level, anxiety. Something is always waiting to get lost. I’m too old for the ensuing freak outs. So, after a year without shopping, it seemed a logical next step to purge and organize.

Past forays into tidying have always required the support (leadership, coercion) of someone else. My ex helped me do two massive reorgs—moving my older son’s bedroom to the basement, and turning my dressing room/junk closet into an office. I was both grateful for the help, and resentful of the perpetual tug-of-war over what was worthy of keeping, and where it would go. It was my stuff. But inevitably, after all the reorganizing and purging, like an untended garden (and I have one of those too) the weeds took over. The short-lived order was reabsorbed by chaos.

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We’re in the midst of a decluttering tsunami, particularly among those who have privilege and a glut of stuff. Marie Kondo and her now omnipresent method (KonMari) of folding and determining what sparks joy has seized the popular imagination. But the joy-sparking measure doesn’t work for those of us who spark too easy. And why purge today, what might sparkle tomorrow, next week or next year?


Purging can get in line behind mindfulness, gratitude, kale and happiness for fad of the day. These trends all respond to stressed-out, over-worked, over-informed, over-programed, over-consuming lives. But in seeking the better way to be, I’m constantly setting myself up for failure. I was so mindful for those few months of meditation.

This time my motivation isn’t fad, but the perfect storm: my age, teenage kids and a diagnosis of cancer in my early 50s. Basically the fear of dying and leaving all this unmarked crap behind. Even if I am deeply attached to these thing, what the hell are my sons going to do with the philosophy essay from first year university or the adorable 1920s toy tea set I bought in San Francisco? The whole process might be less like KonMari-ing, than it is like Swedish Death cleaning–organizing and de-cluttering our belongings before we die. Basically, if not for yourself, at least do it for your kids, you selfish hoarder. So, it’s time to reduce and contain the problems, ideally in separate labelled boxes.

A friend recommended Sophie, who had officially left the personal organizing business behind because at $75 an hour it didn’t pay nearly enough to deal with people’s emotional baggage. Decluttering is rarely about getting rid of things, it’s about our deep emotional, often irrational, attachment to them.  Because she was a friend of a friend, we approached the process informally. When done professionally, Sophie would start by establishing a clear, mutually agreed upon set of expectations and rules.  We went pretty much straight to purging. Sophie warned me the process wasn’t going to overhaul my personality and turn me from Oscar into Felix. Fair enough. But still, it feels different from times I’ve cleared things away before. Maybe it’s paying good money for it. Maybe it’s because I’m actually decluttering to declutter, not to make space for something else. Still, I might be setting myself up, yet again, for disappointment, regret and recidivism.

At our first meeting, I grabbed pen and paper to make notes and clever observations, and took Sophie through my house room by room to identify the problems, starting in the basement which houses the vintage items like property taxes from 1989 or 15 years of Lego. I’d call it the belly of the beast, but this beast has many bellies. We moved on to drawers and cupboards in the kitchen where scotch tape, batteries and only some of my instruction manuals reside. (It would be so great if they were all in the same place.) Then up to ground zero–my bedroom and overflow cupboard or so-called-office (SCO). One needs a bit of clear surface to work, so I use the queen-sized-bed-as-desk approach. It’s easier to shove over a pile of clothes, than a pile of paper.
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Two days later I went frantically looking for the notes I’d taken. I was sobbing when I sent my nineteen-year old a text asking if by chance he’d taken them to Ottawa. The fifteen-year old didn’t reply but when he got home from school he shoved a handful of wrinkled papers at me. In an unusual decluttering move of his own, my son decided to clean out his backpack on the floor of the gym. Figuring rightly, that the papers belonged to someone else (not his mother), he threw them out. My text sent him running back to find the bin empty. But he suddenly remembered that he’d overshot it. And there they were behind the can. The moral of this perfect story to start my own decluttering journey, is that when things have their place, they don’t get taken to school and thrown out.

I like to blame the kids, but my disorganization predates procreation by decades.

Sophie and I started with the clothes. We identified categories and she asked what I thought it was reasonable to own. There were no right answers. I wasn’t being judged. So, how many cardigans? I say 20 but quickly up it to 30, fearing someone might show up and take away the excess.

Every item is examined and many are tried on. Some are tossed out with nary a second thought, others require a discussion far deeper than do I like it and will I wear it? For instance, the lime green cashmere sweater bought on sale at Nordstrom maybe two years ago, maybe less. I look at myself from every angle. Yup, still pretty ugly. It’s meant to hang loose and never has, not once in the four times I wore it, or the twenty times I tried it on and took it off. But it’s cashmere and even on sale, it wasn’t cheap. How can I toss it? Is the answer really to put it back in the drawer and only wear it on those special occasions when I want to feel bad? It’s a lesson, I tell myself. An $89 lesson. It won’t happen again. I toss it in the giveaway pile. Next come the skinny jeans. Not narrow through the ankles, skinny, but am I thin enough, skinny. That is their sole purpose. I don’t own a scale. That’s way too scary. I just like to upset myself by trying to squeeze my ass into pants I don’t even like. At the very least I should use a pair I’d actually wear. Out they go.

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The seven garbage bags of clothing I’ve identified to give away are scheduled to l be picked up by the Cerebral Palsy people who fortuitously called right when I started the project. As instructed, I labelled the bags and put them on the porch. I got the date wrong. I was four days early which gave me time to drag the bags back in and dig out cold t-shirts. Thankfully only three.
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I did the bulk of my purging before watching Marie Kondo’s Tidying up, so not one item was thanked for its service before being discarded. In the interest of good gratitude karma, I’m thinking of going by a Value Village and doing a blanket thank you to everything there.

All my clothes now fit in my bedroom. Jeans are hanging in my closet where I can see them, not pilled in a dark corner of the SCO, where I frequently pulled them all to the floor to locate the pair I wanted.

Next, we tackle the office and papers. Sophie tells me people fall into two categories outies who need to see things (like bills) as a reminder to deal with them, and inies who can tuck things away in inboxes and drawers and not forget they’re there. I’m the proverbial out of sight out of mind kind of person, which can be very dangerous. So the lovely brushed chrome three-level in-tray that sat on my desk for years with the exact same papers on it, is useless and must go.

Everything has to be emptied, the filing cabinet; the set of shallow drawers, the shelves packed with books, more papers and decorative items, like the beautiful heavy metal trucks and trains I bought at a rummage sale for my eldest when he was a baby. I had every intention of building a high shelf in his room for them, well out of reach, to gather dust, since they aren’t actually toys but potential lethal weapons.

My office has a wall of shelves. We start moving stuff around. Sophie creates seemingly random, temporary categories and labels them with masking tape: photos, to shred, sentimental, business cards, maps, kid stuff, hardware and the largest category, decorative, which includes pretty rocks, all those trains and trucks and a rubber purse that looks like Nemo from Finding Nemo (a gift from the kids). It’s frustrating that things can’t go straight to their final resting places until I know exactly what I have. The idea is to do it once, properly. Sophie needs me to slow down. I’m too speedy, not in a star athlete way, but in an impatient, exasperated way. Sorting paper, yoga and meditation run counter to my nature.

My decorative items take up what Sophie refers to as prime real estate in my office. She suggests a place for bills to pay since I have a problem getting to them on time. While I don’t lose them, I misplace them in deep piles of flyers and unopened mail, and often pay late penalties. “You want it on that shelf?” I ask. “But that’s where my rocks live.”

An accordion file of unremarkable medical information from my first months of treatment for lymphoma—appointment notices, wrist bands, two envelopes, each containing one post-chemo anti-nausea pill, makes me unexpectedly teary. I write about cancer, volunteer at a Toronto cancer centre, have many friends with cancer, so I’m surprised by my reaction to these non-threatening mementos. But just like that, they transport me back to those terrified, shell-shocked, uninitiated moments. It’s curious what has the power to do that.
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When the day is done, we are far enough along for me to drop the So-Called, leaving a functional office unearthed (once again) from the rubble of my messy life. Sophie has made space for the way I’m learning I work best. I begin to embrace the logic of her systems.

On her next visit, we head to the basement to deal with history. Toys, art supplies, more photos and letters, hats, extension cords, art that’s had its day, barely-breathing electronic equipment, heartfelt poems. Similar to what’s upstairs, just older and even more disorganized. But the thing about the basement, unlike the office, is that it doesn’t really have to work for me. It’s “kind of” ok the way it is. So when Sophie makes suggestions for where to begin, I push back.  She gently suggests I seem a little hostile, which I’m embarrassed to say is true. While almost all of her clients express resistance, it’s mostly dealt with by the goals and rules they agreed upon at the outset. Sophie worries that maybe we shouldn’t have skipped that part.

I find 1986 transcripts from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, printed on that onion paper I’d only seen used in Europe and the Middle East. It’s in Hebrew. I can’t even read it. And then there are personal letters I’d be mortified to have my kids find. Haven’t reread them in years. Why keep them? Is it just easier than deciding? But tough as it is, I’m finding that many attachments have an expiry date. To everything, there is a season. Stuff I’ve never contemplated getting rid of, suddenly loosens its hold on me.

I had thought we’d leave the kitchen alone, aside from a couple of overflowing junk shelves. But this process is like dominoes, or a house of cards, or a scab. And the next thing I know the counter is covered in enough storage containers to run a soup kitchen, if I ever made soup, and expired pill bottles, like the jar of Rolaids from November 1996. The morning after we went at it, I woke up over-excited at 4 a.m. By 7:30 three new kitchen drawers were empty and ready for who knows what. Maybe stuff I can’t currently reach. And I learned a few things: washing out baggies with that much water does not reduce my carbon footprint; elastic bands have a life span; I will never use oversized BBQ utensils.

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In the process of decluttering, I found all sorts of things including; the hood to the super lightweight raincoat that I always thought would be so much more functional if it had come with a hood; Nine umbrellas that can keep the one crappy umbrella I thought was working alone, company; and my Ketubah (Jewish marriage contact). When my ex and I went for our get (Jewish divorce) in 2004, many years after we split, the orthodox Rabbis of the Bet Din (high court) were stunned we couldn’t find it. Who loses their Ketubah?
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I’ve always believed or maybe just convinced myself, that certain behaviours are constant, genetic even, that at my core, I’m a frantic, disorganized person, and despite the pain and anxiety this causes me, it’s simply the way it is; and that somehow, it’s conveniently connected to creativity. The fear of losing myself in tidiness has been a fine excuse to change nothing.

Hiring someone to work with, and writing about it, were huge motivators. I was never under the illusion I’d be transformed, yet here I am many weeks in, still hanging up my jeans and folding t-shirts, sweaters and even socks like Marie Kondo does, sort of. I love being able to see my things. I’m not simply finding, but actively looking for stuff to get rid of. My paper skills are still weak, but my envelopes are being opened, and my bills are being paid. I feel lighter now that the skinny jeans are gone. When I started out a couple of months ago, I thought what I needed was either a circa 1957 wife, or a live-in domestic dominatrix. Now I’m going it on my own and feeling positively born again.

The decluttering process I’d hoped would leave my house neater, has also challenged my sense of who I am. That helpless Tasmanian Devil I’ve clung to and maybe cultivated, who engenders pity and a guilty willingness to help out (more in my parents and friends, than in my kids) must really piss people off. Maybe she’s not who I have to be.